How to handle Stealth, Perception, and Potential Encounters?

If the players are robbing a building but making no particular effort to be quiet, how should the potential encounter with the guards be handled? It seems awkward to “just say yes” to Stealth when the question isn’t even being asked… Once the encounter between PCs and guards is set to happen, what distance should it start at?

I can think of three options off the top of my head:

a) GM introduces the guards at the time and place that maximizes belief-challenge and drama. This option me as the most BWG-like but it deprives high Perception characters the chance to get the benefit of that ability.
b) Give a hint that maybe some stealth would be smart and let the player’s declare intent or not. Successful stealth avoids encounter altogether and GM gets choice of complication for maximum drama if PCs fail.
c) Assume the guards inevitably notice the players and let the PC’s roll Perception/Observation versus the guards’ Stealth. However, that still leaves me with the question of how far away are the guards when the PCs hear them?

Are the guards in the building, guarding what the PCs are after? In that case you just go “There are guards between you and it, you’d have to get by them first to get to the McGuffin”.

Now, if the guards are elsewhere, and being drawn because of the noise, I’d save them for either, A) a failed roll (ESPECIALLY a working carefully roll) or B) when the PCs do something that obviously is going to take a bit of time (probably prompted with an “Are you sure? People likely heard you break in, you might not have much time”). Depending on how mean I was feeling that evening this could manifest on anywhere from “You hear shouting and the sound of metal boots on the cobblestones from outside” to “While you were distracted doing that, the guards got the drop on you!”.

In the first case, the guards would be a fair distance away, and in the second case (or, if they failed the skill roll to get by/ambush the guards in the first case), the guards would be however far away I felt made things most interesting.

But if the PCs succeeded all their skill rolls and moved quickly? I’d probably let them hear the guards arrive after they made their escape. In real life, Smash & Grabs work not because the criminals are stealthy, but just because even with 911, alarms, radio, and police cars, it takes the police a while to get there and they are in and out before the authorities can respond.

Great response, Kyle. In this case, the guards arriving is not an “if” but a “when.” And the “when” should be the result of a failed test, for maximum dramatic effect.

So then, how to decide where they are first placed within the location? Well, guards don’t really care about stealthing. So as soon as a failed test triggers their appearance, tell the PCs that they hear shouts of alarm and that the guards are coming up the street and will be there momentarily. If the PCs fail to run, hide, or otherwise prepare for them, then you narrate the guards entering the room. My point being is that guards never surprise people. Stealth isn’t in their lifepaths for a reason. In fact, look at a City Guard LP for inspiration on how to roleplay them. They are presented as Thugs and Drunks that prefer to Intimidate people into good behavior, and if that fails, Brawl them into submission.

This is a great place for an Instinct.
If the PCs are being deliberately careless, then the watch arrives. But they’re not going to be quiet. It should be an “Oh shit, the cops are coming!” moment.
But if a player has an Instinct to always work quietly or always keep an eye out for the night watch, then those are the right points to give them a roll without anyone having to voice intent.


Thank you very much!